Happy Birthday

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Mathew Brady/Brady-Handy Photograph
Collection/Library of Congress

Happy Birthday, Mark Twain, Author of “Tom Sawyer” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”

November 30, 2010
by Shannon Firth
Along with his trademark cigar and bristly mustache, Mark Twain has long been remembered for his signature wit, his colorful characters and colloquialisms and his willingness to explore issues that many of the writers of his time politely ignored.

Samuel Clemens’ Early Days

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Samuel Langhorne Clemens, who later took the pen name Mark Twain, was born prematurely on Nov. 30, 1835, in a two-bedroom house his parents rented beside the Salt River in Florida, Mo. For several weeks before his birth, Halley’s Comet was visible in the sky.

“By all rights no one should have ever heard of Samuel Langhorne Clemens … yet life takes unexpected turns and the course that his journey took as Mark Twain would have strained the credulity of the most dedicated fiction reader,” wrote biographer Laura Skandera Trombley.

When Samuel was 4 years old, Jane Lampton and John Marshall Clemens moved their family to Hannibal, an emerging port city along the Mississippi River. Though a sickly child until age 9, once he was able, Samuel delighted in the pleasures of life in Hannibal, “a world of straw hats, corn-cob pipes, trout fishing, playing hooky, and watching steamboats ply the river,” writes PBS.

His escapades with two friends, Tom Blankenship and Laura Hawkins, helped shape his best-loved novels, “Tom Sawyer” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

When Samuel was 12, his father died. A year later, he gave up his studies and became a printer’s apprentice at the Missouri Courier. Two years later he published his first sketches while working at his brother Orion’s newspaper.

At 17, Clemens began a letter, “Dear Mother: You will doubtless be a little surprised, and somewhat angry when you receive this, and find me so far from home.” He penned the letter after taking a job as an itinerant printer; the perks of the job included exploring city life in New York and Philadelphia.

His letter was a short while later published in the Hannibal Journal, where he had previously worked with Orion. After a few years, he returned to the Midwest to work again with Orion, at the newly formed Keokuk Journal.

In 1857, Clemens’ dream of living in South America and working on a coca plantation was sidelined after a random encounter with the legendary riverboat pilot, Horace Bixby. He became Bixby’s apprentice instead, and two years later earned his pilot’s license. “I loved the profession far better than any I have followed since, and I took a measureless pride in it,” Clemens wrote in his book, “Life on the Mississippi.”

Mark Twain’s Literary Career

In 1861 the Civil War began, effectively quashing all trade along the Mississippi River and ending Clemens’ fantasy of becoming Horace Bixby. After a brief stint in the Confederate army, he traveled west with Orion—who had been named secretary of the New Territory of Nevada—planning to prospect for silver.

In Virginia, Nevada, after failing as a miner, Clemens, who “amused” himself by writing letters to the Virginia Daily Territorial Enterprise, was offered a position as an editor for $25 per week. Deeply in debt, he took it. “I do not doubt that if, at that time, I had been offered a salary to translate the entire Talmud from the original Hebrew, I would have accepted,” Clemens wrote in “Roughing It.”

On Nov. 18, 1865, Twain published “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog,” a story which he had adapted from a miners’ tale, in the New York Saturday Press. “The story was a sensation, and Twain became known as a western humorist,” wrote  Trombley.

A few months later, responding again to a “vagabond instinct,” he took a four-month trip to the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) where he wrote letters about his experiences for the Sacramento Union, according to the Bancroft Library.

At age 30, he started giving lectures about his travels and sharing other droll anecdotes. His promotional posters teased “Doors open at 7 1/2, the trouble will begin at 8.”

The following year, Clemens convinced the San Francisco Alta California to pay his travel expenses on the “great European pleasure excursion,” in exchange for sending letters describing the trip and the travelers. The Quaker City steamer would tour the Mediterranean and the Holy Land. His letters were later woven into the novel, “Innocents Abroad,” a humorous novel about Americans’ responses to European culture, which was published in 1869.
In 1876, Twain published “The Adventure of Tom Sawyer,” which author William Dean Howells described as “a wonderful study of the boy-mind … in this lies its great charm and its universality, for boy-nature, however human nature varies, is the same everywhere,” in his review for Atlantic Monthly.

Nearly 10 years later, he published the sequel to “Tom Sawyer,” and arguably his best-loved novel, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” in which a young boy runs away from home with a fugitive slave named Jim and struggles with the ethical dilemma over whether to help him escape his owners.

The character of Jim was based on “Uncle Dan’l” who Clemens described as “a middle-aged slave whose head was the best one in the negro quarter, whose sympathies were wide and warm and whose heart was honest and simple and knew no guile.”

Between these two books, Twain published several other novels including “A Tramp Abroad,” “The Prince and the Pauper,” “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” and “Life on the Mississippi,” which recalled his years as a river boat pilot. According to the Official Website of Mark Twain, he authored 28 books along with countless short stories, letters and sketches.

Clemens’ Family Life and Death

Between building his career as an author, lecturer and later a publisher, Clemens was also raising a family. While aboard the Quaker City cruise, he befriended Charles Langdon, the son of a wealthy New York coal magnate. Twain later accompanied Langdon to a reading in New York, and there met Langdon’s sister Olivia. He courted “Livy” for two years before they married, according to the Mark Twain House.

Clemens described her devotion and “absolutely limitless affection,” saying, “[s]he remained both girl and woman to the last day of her life,” according to PBS.

Clemens had three daughters, Susy, Clara and Jean, and a son who died in infancy. After an unfortunate investment in a typesetting machine, clemens fell deeply in debt. He moved the family to Europe and started an international lecture circuit to gain back his lost finances.

In 1896, Clemens was devastated by the loss of his 24-year-old daughter Susy, who died from meningitis. His outlook grew dark and his criticism of government more caustic, which in turn threatened his livelihood, as fewer lecture circuits and publishers were willing to print and receive such harsh criticism. In 1900, when he returned with his family to the United States, he became vice president of the Anti-Imperialist League.

His wife Livy died in June 1904. Clemens continued to write and lecture in New York.  Jean, his youngest daughter and an epileptic, died of a seizure in 1909. “The Death of Jean” was his last significant work, according to The Hannibal Courier-Post. He died four months later of heart failure.

Though 100 years have passed since his death, Twain's singular legacy continues. “I believe that Mark Twain had a clearer vision of life, that he came nearer to its elementals and was less deceived by its false appearances, than any other American who has ever presumed to manufacture generalizations, not excepting Emerson. I believe that he was the true father of our national literature, the first genuinely American artist of the royal blood,” wrote H.L. Mencken.

The Controversy Over “Huckleberry Finn”

A year after publication, “Huckleberry Finn” was banned by the Concord Public Library for “coarse language.” One reviewer called it “the veriest trash … more suited to the slums than to intelligent, respectable people,” according to Time.

Although the book is no longer banned, the language, characterizations and depiction of race in the novel are still contested. Critics of Twain such as Jane Smiley thought it irresponsible for him to not push his characters far enough in challenging racism. Justin Kaplan takes Smiley’s argument to mean that “Huckleberry Finn” promotes a “‘simplistic and evasive theory’ of racism as a problem to be alleviated through feeling rather than action.”

Critic and essayist David Bradley asserted in a PBS interview, “Mark Twain told the Truth. He saw what we were about and was not afraid to deal with things that other people were afraid of.”

At least outwardly, Clemens appeared empathetic. He once described a dozen slaves chained together on their way to be sold, as “the saddest faces I have ever seen.” Yet his family owned slaves. He spent a lot of time in the slaves’ quarters at his uncle’s house.

In an attempt to define their relationship to him, he wrote, “We were comrades and yet not comrades; color and condition interposed a subtle line which both parties were conscious of and which rendered complete fusion impossible.”

Mark Twain Today

Today's readers employ his work as a lens through which to understand the end of slavery, the birth of industry and the threat of foreign wars. Through Twain’s life and work, “we can delve into the American mindset of the late nineteenth century and make our own observations of history.”

Mark Twain’s autobiography, described by writer Luke Kennard of the National Conversation as an anti-chronological, “freewheeling, associative blend of character studies, press cuttings, family history, letters and public speeches,” was released on the 100-year anniversary of his death, as he instructed.

“Even allowing for Twain’s astonishing fame during his life, there is a certain old-world complacency to the assumption that people would still be interested in his work 100 years later,” wrote Luke Kennard for The National. But Twain was not wrong. The remaining two volumes are slated for release in the next five years.
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